Delco crisis team works to combat suicides, help with issues

Posted: June 15, 2014

In a county where suicide incidents had risen disturbingly, the Delaware County Crisis Connections Team opened its doors a little less than a year ago.

More than 1,300 calls later - many involving people who said they were contemplating suicide - the team evidently has become a valuable resource for county residents struggling with mental illness, as well as their families and the community. The callers' ages have ranged from 3 to 93.

"It is almost like we are mediators in a conversation that hasn't been going well for a while," said Maria Sciarrino, one of the mobile crisis specialists who respond to the calls.

"We have seen the beginning of a difference," said Kevin Caputo, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. He said he thinks the work of the Connections Team has contributed to a decline in the number of patients being seen at the hospital-based crisis center.

The team, which includes a 24/7/365 mobile crisis unit, a peer help line, and outreach, is based at Elwyn, the human-services organization for children and adults in Middletown Township.

The team members' roles are to listen, defuse situations, and help with future plans. "We are not a 911 emergency service," said Donna Holiday, the mental health/Health Choices director for the county's Office of Behavioral Health.

Requests for help come through that office or through the team's peer-to-peer warm line, which triages the calls. They come from individuals with mental-health issues or their family members, caregivers, police, schools, judges, clergy, or even passersby who might notice something amiss. The help line is staffed by people who have been through mental-health systems.

Referrals are then made to the 30-member mobile crisis service. The response time is less than an hour, said John Muehsam, the clinical supervisor of the team.

The majority of the calls to which the team responds are from people 21 and older. They represent a wide range of ethnic and racial groups, and are about evenly divided between males and females.

More than four out of five calls have originated from residences. Others come from police stations, schools, shelters, nursing homes, and even the street.

A substantial number, about 20 percent, have involved people considering suicide, a source of major concern in the county, which is funding the center. According to county figures, the rate of suicide rose 30 percent between 2010 and 2012.

Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties have had similar programs in place.

In Delaware County, when the two members of the mobile team respond to a call, they evaluate the situation, talk to all parties involved, offer therapy, and make suggestions for ways to better cope with what is going on. They then make referrals to mental-health professionals for follow-up help, and they check back the next day.

During a recent call Muehsam and a partner went to the home of an adult female whose caregivers felt she was a danger to herself. They wanted her placed in protective custody. The crisis team was able to determine she was safe at her home and saw no reason to be concerned, he said. When they checked back the next day, the woman had followed their suggestions to get extra help.

"We're here as a community resource," said Muehsam. "We are not the ones who are going to fix the problem for everybody. We're going to come in and try and help the people who are around this person - the inner circle who are able to be there after we leave."

To reach the peer-to-peer line, call 1-855-464-9342 between 6 and 10 weeknights and 1 and 7 p.m. on weekends. To reach the Delaware County Office of Behavioral Health, call 1-855-899-7827.



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